Horse Barns and Jockeys: The History of Horse Racing

The rush of adrenaline, the roar of the crowd, and the thundering clamor of hooves: Horse racing is not a sport for the faint of heart. Horse racing requires physical stamina, quick reflexes, and a working collaboration between horse and jockey in order to succeed. There's excitement and danger and the chance to make racing history. It's no wonder that horse racing is one of the most popular sports in the world.

History of Horse Racing

The history of horse racing is rich with the patronage of kings, sheiks, emperors, nobles, and a good amount of miscellaneous heroes and villains because it has been popular as a sport for thousands of years. The first recorded horse race was part of the first Olympics held in Greece, though historians are certain this was not the first. Chariot racing became popular in the Great Circus of Ancient Rome. The Arabs ran endurance races through the harsh deserts for centuries. In literally every place where horses were found, there is a record of a racing tradition there. Modern steeplechase and flat-track racing evolved out of hunting sports like fox hunting and private races held by nobility in Great Britain and other European countries. Once the colonies had been established, quarter horse racing also grew out of this tradition and has continued ever since.

Types of Horse Racing

Flat-track races: These races are run on a flat track that could be turf, dirt, grass, or a synthetic riding surface. They include both thoroughbred racing and quarter horse racing. Thoroughbred flat-track races are often longer distances, usually a mile to mile and a quarter long. The Triple Crown consists of the most famous of the thoroughbred races: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes.

Quarter horse races: Typically, quarter horses race against each other in no more than a quarter-mile sprint. The track conditions for quarter horse races are basically the same for thoroughbred races, but they are usually just straight lines or with one curve at the end called a "hook." Even though thoroughbred races are well-known, quarter horse races are gaining in popularity and because of the short distance, it can be very exciting to watch.

Harness races: Harness racing hearkens back to the Roman chariot rides and has been popular for centuries. Like flat-track races, they are normally run on a flat track. Horses are harnessed to a very light cart called a "sulky," and the rider sits in the sulky and directs the horse. Sulkies are only allowed to be made of certain lightweight materials, and they are designed to be as fast and as aerodynamic as possible to help the rider go more quickly. It has a very small seat, which makes even sitting on it a skill! Unlike regular flat-track races, there is no inner railing in order to keep the harness racers safe.

Steeplechases: Steeplechases are gaining popularity in the U.S. and involve jumping over various obstacles between the start and the finish. These obstacles could be hedges, fences, wood logs, or even raised flower beds. The steeplechase got its name from the early days of this race: Originally, it would be a wager between two men who would agree to race four miles between one church steeple and the next one that was visible. There are three variations of steeplechase: chase races (2-4 miles long), hurdle races (2-3 miles long), and National Hunt races (easier amateur races for beginners).

Endurance races: Endurance races are one of the fastest-growing equine sports. Endurance races vary, with some being 10 miles long while others could be well more than 100 miles. This event is not held on a track; instead, a trail is marked and it is up to the riders to make their way through the countryside to the finish line. Longer races usually last multiple days, and the rider will have their own team to help them out.

Breeds of Horses Commonly Used to Race

Thoroughbred: Thoroughbreds are prized throughout the world as a standard of equine excellence. Their lineage is very carefully documented, as this determines their value. Thoroughbreds are agile, intelligent, and spirited as a breed, which makes them excellent racing horses. They are widely favored for flat-track races and steeplechase.

Quarter horse: Quarter horses were bred in the U.S. to be smaller and stockier than thoroughbreds. They are extremely muscular and capable of running short distances very quickly, which is why they are prized sprinters. They are usually good-natured and intelligent, which makes them common pets and pleasure horses, but they are not good for endurance, as they are smaller than most horse breeds.

Standardbred: Standardbreds are a variation of the thoroughbred and bred specifically for harness racing. They have a quick trot, which means that they can move quickly without stretching their legs out into a gallop, so they won't kick over a cart.

Arabian: Arabian horses are prized for their endurance and are normally used in endurance races. They tend to be spirited and high-strung but are very nimble and agile, which makes them great for trail riding where the turf is uneven. Other breeds used for endurance races are paints and Appaloosas.

What is a Jockey?

A jockey is the rider of a horse during a flat-track rate or harness race. They are in charge of directing the horse based on racing strategy and experience. This means telling when the horse to speed up or slow down and directing them around other horses at the best time. While riding, the jockey can't break the horse's rhythm, as this could cost them valuable time. Being a jockey can be very dangerous, and for their protection, jockeys are required to wear flak jackets and helmets. Jockeys have very strict physical requirements for their job; they can't weigh more than 115 pounds, and they must be short. Many jockeys get started by doing small jobs around stables or breeding farms and get a lot of experience riding before they ever become a jockey.

First Olympic Games: A description of the sports first played at the first Olympics, which included horse racing among many other events.

Light Horse Breed Types and Uses (PDF): A university publication that outlines a variety of breeds and their uses, including the main racing breeds and the endurance breeds.

History of Thoroughbreds: This site gives us a great overview of the development of the thoroughbred racing horse and how it developed.

The Horse: If you wanted to know about the evolution of the horse, this article is an informative resource.

History of Steeplechasing: The National Steeplechase Museum offers additional information about this sport and how it evolved.

Spirit and Speed: Spirit and Speed is a documentary on horse racing; WVIA offers a summary of the history of horse racing on their website for those interested in learning more.

Wild Horses: The Sporting Horse: An interesting resource for those seeking more information about how horses being included in sporting events like racing came about.

USA Horse Races Explained: This website offers a very in-depth breakdown of the types of thoroughbred races and their ranking systems here in the U.S.

Types of Horse Racing: A quick and dirty guide to the general categories of horse racing with brief descriptions of each.

What is the Best Horse Breed for Racing?: A short description of both thoroughbred and standardbred horses used for steeplechase and harness racing.

The Quarter Horse: This is an interesting article about the history of the quarter horse and how it developed here.

Harness Racing in Kansas: A guide to the history of harness racing.

Collective Wisdom for Endurance Riding: Endurance horse racing is well described here.

Horse Racing and Betting: A brief overview of horse racing and betting with a focus on harness racing and steeplechase.

Jockeys: What They Do: This career planning website gives a great overview of what a jockey's profession is, the requirements, and other aspects of the job.

Mangled Horses, Maimed Jockeys: The New York Times offers an article about the dangers of horse racing.